Last week, I did a piece on the importance of learning to admit when we’re wrong. Since listening is such an important part of that process, I thought it would be interesting to expand on. Listening is one of those things that separates small-talk from significant and enlightening conversations, good leaders from transformative innovators, and casual relationships from profoundly cherished connections. It allows us to better understand others, making it easier to discover the sense of belonging we all crave.
So where do we start? Let’s talk about why the world needs more listeners, why we each crave to be heard, and how to go about doing it properly.
Why Listening is So Important
Okay, so take a moment to consider whether or not you’ve ever truly listened to someone else. I mean, actively paid attention to what they were saying without waiting to respond. How about resisting the urge to engage in an internal monolog filled with opinions and judgments about what they’re sharing? Did you combat the itch to somehow make it about or relatable to yourself?
It’s difficult, right?
It’s challenging if we find it boring or not relatable to ourselves. So we have to remember that listening to someone else isn’t always for or about us. We can always learn through listening, but a lot of the time people just want to exist in a space where who they are and what they’re saying is valued. It provides a space for true understanding, and when we can better understand who someone is and where they’re coming from, it’s much easier to practice empathy for their experience.
We begin to take their behaviors less personally because we begin to grasp the underlying emotions and personal history behind them more clearly.
The late David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, and brilliant human, delivered an eye-opening commencement speech called, This is Water which reminds me of this idea. It essentially points out that we are not the center of the universe, however much we may believe that to be the ultimate truth. He points out that every single person is consistently experiencing their own inner struggle and that we’re all just doing the best we can at any given moment. It’s one of the reasons listening to someone else’s experience is so important.
Why We Crave To Be Heard
It’s pretty simple, actually, and it always seems to boil down to one thing. We want to know that we matter.
Most of us at some time or another, probably when we were young, weren’t listened to. Maybe we were products of neglect and no one was there to nurture us, or our feelings were dismissed by our parents. Maybe we tried to be vulnerable, only to receive a rejection from our peers or romantic partners. Perhaps we were told that we were too loud, too expressive, to be quiet, or to behave.
Sometimes we close ourselves off, unable to talk about our truth for fear of further pain or rejection and avoid the spotlight entirely, being the “good listener.” Or, if you’re like me, you overcompensate for that absent attention by consistently vying for the spotlight, praying you’ll somehow find the love and acceptance you so desperately longed for all those years ago.
Ultimately, we all want our existence to be validated. We want to know that it’s okay to feel the ways we do and for someone to normalize our particular brand of crazy. We need to be reminded that we aren’t alone in these experiences to escape the more difficult existential truth that we ultimately always are. We seek to be understood and recognized for our contributions to the collective.
We want to know that our stories are relevant and that we matter, that our lives were worth living and are worth remembering when we’re gone. We want to feel less isolated and alone and to find a sense of belonging through connection and intimacy with others.
How to be a Kick-Ass Listener
1. Put Your Phone (and Any Other Piece of Technology) Down
If you want to be a good listener, you’re going to have to be present and attentive. I know, I know, ughhh so annoying that I would have to put down my phone, close my computer screen, and actually give a shit about something.
Baby steps, people.
If you’re distracted, you’re wasting both of your time, and it’s rude to the person you’re trying to connect with.
Look at them, (or in their general direction, prolonged unwavering eye contact can be unnerving) practice using your EQ and body language, and give them time to express their thoughts without interruption. (Intermittent head nods and mhm’s are acceptable…use your discretion and stuff).
2. Stop Making it About Yourself
When you’re listening to someone else – it’s about them. I know that as much as I love being included in everything, this is their time to speak, proclaim, declare, lament, verbalize, vent, have a mini meltdown, make tasteless jokes, have a weird tangent…whatever.
We’re aiming to hold space for someone as a sounding board. Resist the urge to offer unsolcited advice or turn the conversation back to yourself, unless they’re hoping for reassurance and relation. If they want feedback, offer what you’ve got and ask clarifying questions.
- If they’re offering constructive criticism, HEAR IT. I cannot stress this piece enough. Every piece of feedback you hear is valid because it’s the way someone else is experiencing you from their perspective. Take it in stride and fight the urge to explain yourself or justify it unless they ask you for further clarification about the situation.
3. Be Understanding and Empathetic
Maybe you think what they’re complaining about is bullshit and they sound totally entitled. Maybe it’s a super tough conversation and they’re sharing something vulnerable or embarassing. Put yourself in their shoes and keep any judgements or opinions to yourself. Seek to understand where they’re coming from and why they might be feeling the way they do.
Sometimes we just want someone to validate that the current situation totally sucks or is absolutely awesome – we don’t need anything more or anything less.